Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa’s new book, Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2021 (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 288 pp. $35, hardcover; $16.99 (Kindle), contains a dozen new poems and more than a hundred from his five previous volumes with the same publisher. It does not include any of his classic work published by Wesleyan University Press, such as Dien Cai Dau (1988), his book of Vietnam War poetry, or Neon Vernacular, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.
Komunyakaa is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine, and teaches at New York University. War as part of the human experience continues to be a major theme in his poetry. But Komunyakaa is no longer writing about the Vietnam War; he is now considering war throughout all of time, from the prehistoric years to the present—and beyond.
He dedicates this new collection to his daughters and granddaughter, who receive a reference in the first poem. When that poem mentions “Lucy,” we realize we’ve been taken back to the Australopithecus beginnings of human existence.
In the early poems Komunyakaa writes about working in the fields, “unearthing what we live to eat.” There are “Lessons of earth,” a mention of “the first tongue,” and “storytellers drunk on grog.” Then, quickly, there are blues to be played and highways to be walked.
We were young as condom-balloons
flowering crab apple trees in double bloom
& had a world of baleful hopes & breath
A reoccurring theme is the sense that life is a race to try and get as much done as possible before the end comes and we meet the maggots. In “Ode to the Maggot,” for example, we read: “no one gets to heaven/Without going through you first.” We encounter the use of torture in the human experience, but there also is desire—and nymphs and sex organs, real and manufactured.
The line “I deal in cosmic stuff” follows others about jazz greats sniffing gasoline and Sylvia Plath’s head going into her oven. Those and other tragedies abound in these verses—including the failings of the human body, mutilations, and massacres.
There are lines clearly aimed at engaging with the reader, such as: “The day opened like a/geisha’s pearl fan”, “How did the evening star/fall into that room?” and “Her skin is now a lost map.”
In “The Towers” the words are printed on the page in such a way as to resemble the actual Twin Towers on that fateful day in 2001. The poem mentions people writing e-mails, dead cellphones, exploding windows and, finally, search dogs.
He also writes of “flirtatious mermaids,” people who are “born to teach horses to dance,” and “late April kisses.”
Yusef Komunyakaa is known for his use of the ampersand in his poetry instead of the word “and” as a stylistic decision to move a poem ahead at a slightly faster pace. Its use is a point of minor controversy among contemporary poets.
Some of Komunyakaa’s work is considered to be difficult to understand, but I’ve found that it’s best to relax and read every word and, subliminally, you’ll understand more than you think.
It’s poetry you feel in your bones before it gets to your heart or brain. It goes deep and stays with you. Komunyakaa is a master.